Monday, June 21, 2004

"Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity"

If he had been born a few years earlier he would have been in Hitler's Youth. A young school-aged child, he and his single mother dodged Allied bombs in a besieged Berlin. She ended up in the brutal fray of the fallen capital, ravaged by Russian soldiers. Mother and son survived on potato peelings and hope, and finally escaped from a Russian detention camp. As the buildings cooled and survivors picked through the rubble of their lives and their city, the Allies arranged the joint occupation of Berlin. Determined missionaries from the Church of Christ, part of the Stone-Campbell restoration movement, led by a deeply loved preacher, Otis Gatewood, reached the young mother with a simple gospel message. Sometime after her baptism, she met and married an American G.I. The couple returned to the states, bringing the young man to complete his education in America.

Enthusiasm for history and social issues characterized this young man as he grew. I met him when he was an undergraduate at a Christian college. He married my next-door neighbor, and became a secondary social studies teacher. Two indelible impressions from him informed my political socialization and to a certain extent influenced my approach to Christian thought. First, he taught me the word "ethnocentrism" when I was ten years old, clearly showing its insidious nature. Secondly, he had a small sheet of paper posted above his desk that bore these words, "Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity."

To an American evangelical in these early days of the millennium, the first idea may not be a cause for alarm, but the latter may smack of something sinister. Post 9/11, even the baby boomers disillusioned by Vietnam found their way to Wal-Mart to buy an American flag. I know I cut an American flag out of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on 9/12, laminated it, and hung it on my classroom wall. It hangs there today. 9/11 and many other factors have lead to an increasingly close relationship between evangelical Christianity and patriotism. This tie, strenghthened by radio talk shows, websites, interest groups, and a secular news network confirming its leanings, alarms me. My experience today raised concern.

First, the AJC reported that the National Association of Evangelicals is "mulling over guidelines that would warn the faithful against allying themselves too closely with any one political party, 'lest nonbelievers think that the Christian faith is essentially political in nature." The mulling over process is a start.

Next, only a few pages over, the AJC ran a story headlined "Christian 'exodus’ to S.C. planned-Texan envisions state free of liberal meddling". Determined to stop the federal government from "imposing what he considers its liberal will, he wants South Carolina to secede." This fellow wants to get 12,000 Christians to move to South Carolina in order to take over the state government and enact a set of laws friendly to his political ideology, which he bases on his interpretation of scripture. It brought some relief to read that the conservative speaker of the State House in South Carolina and a spokesman from Bob Jones University both panned the idea. Nonetheless, 600 folks have signed up. According to the AJC, he's been given some positive press from conservative talk show personalities and websites.

Today I sat in a class of teachers preparing to teach Advanced Placement Comparative Politics and Government. I wish some of my precious Christian friends could hear the perceptions they have of Christians. These perceptions come directly from the stridency and partisanship of the current political climate. It hit me as ironic when the distinguished professor came to a brief discussion of "the functions of ideology". One such function, political scientists assert, is to give one the ability to get along---to be socially accepted. My understanding of the Word is that our spiritual kinship in Jesus makes us one of the bunch. However, the climate today among my believing friends is so partisan and nationalistic, that some look askance if you indicate that you question the current administration's policies. Some believers assume that their interpretation of politics is so right and righteous, that they bring to the assembly of Christians political statements, both serious ones and others they consider funny. For example, just this past Sunday, one of my dearest friends and a brother in Christ asked, in an organized Bible study setting, “So, who is going to buy Bill Clinton’s book this week?” His tone was intentionally pejorative.

My over “three score and ten” mother, a Roosevelt Democrat, replied, “I plan to buy the book; I love Bill Clinton.” The group fell completely silent, and the teacher dropped the topic. Oops. Political ideology did not function to make her part of the group.

What is a person possessing a different political persuasion to do? Counter partisan political remarks, therefore sounding argumentative, or sit silently in order to keep peace? Keeping silent on political remarks to keep the peace may have a biblical basis. This could be an equal opportunity silence. Presuming partisanship and demanding a form of patriotism is not the ideology Christ declared would bring us together.

The NAE indicates that it wants its members to avoid the excesses of nationalism, but encourages “maintaining a commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad and opposition to some specified social evils---alcohol, drugs, abortion, and stem-cell research.” Profound problems and debates surround the issues listed, but even the comments of this disclaimer make it no wonder "nonbelievers think that Christianity may be essentially political in nature."

What if the NAE said, "Let's avoid the excesses of nationalism and concentrate instead on making disciples, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and otherwise helping the poor--especially single mothers and fatherless children. Let's be known for healing the sick, welcoming immigrants to our community, and spending time with prostitutes, drug addicts, and other social misfits. Let's count it a joy if the state persecutes us for the sake of the faith and, by all means, let us be peacemakers." Some believers might look askance and even decide they better join the exodus to South Carolina.

Sadly,the nonbelieving public hears exponentially more about evangelical views on a political issues than they do about the many good works done, but this statement by the NAE confirms, it is not just the liberal media waylaying the message.Evangelicals and other conservative Christians need to own up to their part in obscuring the core of the gospel to nonbelievers, and by their presumption, creating wedges between members of the Christian community.

“Patriotism is the certain death of Christianity.” This statement is extremist, even outrageous to us, but the warning appeared on my neighbor's wall as a legacy of national spirit gone wrong. Certainly, thoughtful civic concern and action will not hammer a nail in the coffin of Christianity, but speaking and acting in such a way that the greater society mistakes the nature of the kingdom, seems worthy of at least a surgeon general's warning.


Chris Dowdy said...


this is good. i will email you more. i have a blog now, shockingly. i tried an online diary once, and it lasted for ten minutes. we'll see how long this lasts. it's chrisdowdy.whatever follows your name on your blog. loveya!

Bev Blair said...

I know mine seems to be the second comment but actually I've sat down several times to comment on this. We have commented on this article several times in our house. Every day we comment on this subject. I struggle to react in the right way to what is the perceived Christian response to the politics of our country. Bob repeats a saying that ends, "A righteous man fights for peace." Are we as a nation fighting for peace? More importantly, are we as Christians fighting for the peace that passes understanding?
Your best friend
(as mentioned in the acapella article, but unnamed),
Beverly Birdwell Blair

Beverly Choate Dowdy said...

Peacemaking is dangerous business! Look what happens to them! Sadat, Ghandi, King, and JESUS. No cowards allowed.

Sorry about not putting your name on that one. You are the best friend EVER.